How Singapore Regulates Book Publishing

One of my most interesting PS Media projects is writing a report for the UK Publishers Association on Singapore's book markets and publishing industry. The report will be available via the Publishers Association soon (very soon!). Here is my current draft of one section, on regulation of the industry, and I am posting it here to invite comments and input from the public and industry players. Please leave your thoughts here, or email me directly. Your help is most appreciated!

As in other countries, the circulation of published material is regulated in Singapore, though the standards for limiting circulation are more restrictive than in many other Asian countries, mostly regarding issues of “public order or morality”. In practice, regulation is done in a mostly nuanced way, and as the regulator's website puts it “leeway is given for books”. That being said, Singapore's defamation laws are not favourable to publishers, and a few political hot-button subjects have attracted heavy reactions from government or political figures in the recent past.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. Article 14(1) sets out this guarantee, and Article 14(2) sets out the reasons this freedom may have limits, expressed through legislation, or, under Singapore legal precedent, via the conventions of common law (including tort of defamation). Restrictions may apply if they are “necessary or expedient” to protect “the security of Singapore, or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality”. In addition, clause 14(2) envisages the possibility of “restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.” These latter restrictions need not be necessary nor expedient.

The Undesirable Publications Act (Chapter 338 of the Singapore Statute), revised most recently in 1998, is the main piece of legislation potentially limiting the distribution of books. (Newspapers are covered under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.) Other legislation which may apply to books includes the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the laws governing civil and criminal defamation as well those preventing contempt of court or Parliament. In one recent case, the threat of prosecution under contempt of court laws was used to block sales and distribution of a book questioning the impartiality of the Singapore justice system.

Under the Undesirable Publications Act, a publication is deemed undesirable if it “describes, depicts, expresses or otherwise deals with ―

  1. matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty, violence or the consumption of drugs or other intoxicating substances in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good; or
  2. matters of race or religion in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial or religious groups.”

The language of the regulations and guidelines that apply the Act will likely seem rather old-fashioned to UK publishers, particularly when it comes to subjects like “descriptions and depictions of sexually permissive and alternative lifestyles e.g. sexual activity involving persons of the same gender”.

In practice however, the public good is judged to be quite robust to injury from books, and the Undesirable Publications Act is administered with a rather light touch. There have been no prosecutions under the Act since 2006. In late 2008 a couple was charged under the Undesireable Publications Act and the Sedition Act for distributing religious flyers judged inflammatory. They were eventually prosecuted under the Sedition Act only.

Publishing, along with other media activities, is regulated by the Media Development Authority of Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts. According to the MDA, “importers need to ensure that the publications/audio materials brought in for distribution do not feature content which could be considered objectionable on moral, racial or religious grounds, or deemed detrimental to Singapore’s national interests.” Given the challenge of monitoring the more than two million publications imported into Singapore each year, government takes an approach it terms co-regulation. The MDA asks publishers and importers to heed regulations, and regularly publishes guidelines to help publishers and book importers understand the relevant legislation, common law provision and regulations as administered.

All the main trade book distributors are members of a Registered Importers Scheme, which lists some 167 companies. According to the MDA's website, “importers co-regulate and assess the suitability of materials for local distribution and consult the MDA when in doubt.” The latest version of the Content Guidelines for Imported Publications can be found at http://mda.gov.sg/Documents/PDF/industry/indus_publishing_Policies%20and.... A list of publications banned or restricted can be consulted by registered members of the scheme online.

Among the publications given special attention in the 2009 Guidelines (in force at the time of writing) are erotic fiction, massage and sex manuals, art publications, religious publications, publications on martial arts and “topics of violence”, as well as comics, including graphic novels. The guidelines provide that certain erotic fiction, sex and massage manuals, art publications and comics can be offered for sale only if importers apply “consumer advice”, in the form of book cover stickers which advise that the books are “unsuitable for the young”. Retailers are asked not to sell such publications “to the young” and to keep publications so tagged in less accessible store locations. The form of the guidelines meant some difficulty for adult graphic novels in earlier years, though distributors and retailers patiently worked with the MDA to overcome issues here. The guidelines also suggest which sorts of books go beyond the bounds of the “consumer advice” category, and which could be interpreted as violating the Act.

Singapore's defamation laws may be considered unfavourable to publishers for two reasons. First, criminal defamation remains on the books. In fact, one author was recently charged with criminal defamation, though the charges were later dropped. (One commentator sees this as a signal that Singapore's authorities consider criminal defamation laws as obsolete.) Secondly, the “public figure” or responsible journalism defense cannot be applied to the tort of defamation, which potentially restricts the space for publications critical of politicians or other public figures. And Singapore judgements have suggested that public figures have more of a reputation to lose, so that awards for libel are higher the more prominent the personality. A handful of books on Singapore politics published overseas over the past 10 years are effectively blocked from circulation due to the threat of defamation and libel actions. Even on less subjects less sensitive to leading politicians, book publishers do find themselves caught up in libel cases from time to time, though awards for successful actions tend to be in the low tens of thousands in such cases.

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